A Great Need of the '90S the Prevailing Ideology in the US Emphasizes Self-Interest and Materialism, Leaving Little Room for Generosity and Public Service
Derek Bok. Derek Bok is a former president of Harvard University. This article is excerpted from the 1992 Godkin Lecture delivered ., The Christian Science Monitor
WHEN we consider what kind of a social philosophy we need for the 1990s, we have to ask ourselves not just what it will do for individual freedom, important as that is, and not just what it will do for the GNP. We also need to ask what effect it will have on the quality and vitality of our public life, on our ethical standards, our charitable impulses, our interest and involvement in public affairs, and our capacity to mobilize enough trust in one another to enable us to cope effectively with the common problems that face us.
We may not need a larger government. We may need a smaller government. But if we are to restore respect for government, we must accord it a truly respected place as an institution that has valuable functions to perform and deserves its fair share of our ablest people to serve in its ranks. We may not wish to legislate morality - surely not - but if we want to improve ethical standards, we should recognize that the kind of social environment we support and the kind of incentives and recognition we emphasize officially do have effects on the level of morality that our society is likely to achieve.
We certainly shouldn't force people to vote, or to be involved in their community. But we can at least attach as much importance to encouraging the duties of citizenship as we do to its rights and its liberties. It is a weakness of the prevailing ideology in this country that it does not address those issues, or even to regard them as tremendously important.
The other weakness in the prevailing ideology is that it proceeds from an unnaturally pessimistic view of human nature. It tends to treat us all as basically self-interested creatures who put private material rewards above everything else. That is why financial incentives are emphasized as the key to motivating people. That is at least one reason why so much emphasis is placed on markets, because they promise to harness our natural avarice for constructive social ends. That is why government is feared - because it may empower majorities to invade individual freedoms for their own selfish ends.
In the last analysis, no system can rely so heavily on personal gain and private ambition and somehow have it all turn out for the good. No laws, no police, no regulations, no invisible hand will ever manage to keep all of these self-interested motives completely in check or mobilize them to meet all of the needs that must be met in our society. That is why, in my view, any viable ideology that we choose for the future must give a prominent place to strengthening those aspects of human nature that are more positive, more generous, more other-regarding, more civic minded than is the pursuit of private gain. …